Snapshot Notes, Barcelona & Montserrat

Students:P. GuellRain in Barcelona, the three days we were there. At Gaudi’s Parque Güell, our students stand in a steady, chilled rainfall. One of them, Matisse, vamps for this shot. Though the camera doesn’t do the effect justice, the Gaudi tiles glistened with rainwater as if varnished.


Montserrat, serrated mountain. From a distance, its craggy peaks form the working edge of a handsaw. A place of pilgrimage for a thousand years, the Benedictine abbey snugs into the mountain’s recesses. Fog swirled around the cliffs when we arrived and the clouds began to break into blue before we left. Here, even teenagers, customarily chattering loudly among themselves, muted their voices.

Sagrada Familia in rain

Sagrada Familia, in progress these last 130 years, first seen in the rain, with raindrops on my lens. Forbidding, colossal, on the outside, within we found it stunning with light, color, beauty. Gaudi’s passion for Christianity was matched by a passion for the forms of nature, his pillars like trees branching into the ceilings.

Sagrada Familia pillars

The great book, always open and which we should make an effort to read, is that of Nature.

—Antoni Gaudi

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Monte Albán, 1993

At every step from the parking lot at Monte Albán, vendors dangled skeins of beads or black velvet boards to which fluttering earrings were pinned like butterflies. I shook my head against their murmuring voices, walked briskly, made it to the ruins.

Although fewer on the site itself, and probably officially discouraged, vendors were still there. A thin, dark old man awaited me, several small, crudely carved clay objects in his hands, at the top of the first hill I climbed.

¿No quiere comprar un díos?  Didn’t I want to buy a god?

No, gracias, I said, as I’d been saying all morning, and stood taking in the panorama I’d come to see.

The bus from Oaxaca climbs a winding narrow road to the mountaintop and these Zapotec ruins. Enthralled with the view, I hadn’t even looked at the site yet. On that June morning, pale rain clouds veiled the green peaks of the Sierra Madres. The great valley was washed in hazy blue. A multitude of white blocks winked through dense trees, the chief evidence of the city below.

At last I lowered my eyes to the foot of the man-made hill on which I stood, to the three parallel rows of temples and wide stretches of green between them. I tried to imagine the action in the ceremonial ball court, remembering a description of breastplates, racquets and helmets, fasting and purification before playing. “Playing” is an odd verb for an event whose outcome was the sacrifice of a participant’s life. One climbed up here, a thousand years ago, to enact somber ritual. The daily business of life took place downslope, in homes of more fragile material, all trace of which was long gone. The records of ordinary people are perishable.

The old vendor stood near me still, squinted beneath his battered straw hat, a great web of wrinkles fanning out from his dark, deep-set eyes.  “There and there,” he pointed, “my grandfather grew corn.”

I saw it suddenly, pre-restoration, the crafted shapes of the eroded hills just discernible beneath thick vegetation, the farmer tending the rows of corn, indifferent to the ruins, which had been there all his life, all his father’s life, all his father’s life–ruins which had nothing to do with him or his grandson, except to provide a place to grow corn, or sell trinkets to tourists–the exchange of one lean livelihood for another. Was grandfather better off than grandson, before the government declared this a zona arqueológico and banished his maiz?  Were the rough clay figures the last attempt at earning a living before resort to plain begging?

I tried to provoke a comment on this from the old man. “¡Qué lástima! Was your grandfather paid for the land?  Given someplace else to plant?”

“That is Building J,” he nodded, playing tour guide. “It is full of tunnels and vaults.”

Maybe my Spanish was incomprehensible. I glanced at him, confused, but his eyes were on Building J. Maybe he didn’t want to discuss it. I tried to squeeze another question from the remnants of my classroom Spanish: pero, la tierra…

Two girls from Amsterdam reached the top and scanned their guidebook. The old man edged away from me, offered the girls his little gods. They weren’t buying either, wanted to see Tumba Siete, where the gold was found.

Nada a ver,” the old vendor dismissed the idea with a wave of his hand. They took all the gold long ago, to museums in Mexico City.  But the Dutch explorers were not to be discouraged. At home in Holland, they’d show their slides: “And here is where those treasures were discovered.”

“My grandfather was Dutch,” I informed the girls from Amsterdam.  “His name was Siebe Keuning.”  They looked baffled, so I spelled the name and their faces brightened. “Oh, king,” they said, gently correcting my pronunciation. And with a swig of Evian from the plastic bottle in their backpack, they were off.

I was more interested in Building J than in Tomb Seven. From my vantage point it looked like an aberration in the otherwise precisely gridded pattern, the only structure set at an angle. They think Building J was an observatory, but aren’t positive. Everything is a reconstruction, a conjecture about the lives of people who lived there from about 500 B.C. to the Conquest–1630 or so. During my visit, a crew swarmed over a roped-off site, moving through the dirt inch by inch, seeking historical truth. So much attention to what is far behind us, so little, sometimes, to what is close.

I searched my childhood for a memory of Grandpa Keuning saying the name and couldn’t find one. I say it as my father did. I practiced the pronunciation the Dutch girls gave me all the way up the observatory, but by the time I reached the top, had forgotten it. I regretted, then, not having bought something from the old vendor. It might have given me something to remember by.

Published in an earlier version in International Quarterly, 1995


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On Turning Seventy

I have achieved my seventy years in the usual way: by sticking strictly to a scheme of life which would kill anybody else.

                                                                                                   Mark Twain

At the doctor, I’d exhausted my list of complaints: right ear pain, waking headaches, sore right shoulder, lump on left wrist, knee and hip stiffness, warty eruptions on the skin. To all of it, Dr. Hunter more or less said, yeah, that happens, suggested ibuprofen and exercise or aspirin and rest. She looked bored, ready to wrap things up. But I didn’t feel like I’d had my money’s worth yet

“And,” I added, stalling, “I just keep getting older: what’ve you got for that?”

“This is your lucky day,” she exclaimed, looking up from the computer screen. “If you’d been here yesterday I couldn’t have helped you, but this morning, on my way to work there was ice, I slid into a ditch and when I stepped out of my car, my foot landed right on the fountain of youth.”

She’s a smartass, my doctor. That’s half why I keep her.

“Look,” she said briskly, “I can show you people twenty years younger than you, who are not half as healthy.” In other words, you got nothing to bitch about, so why are you in here taking my precious time?

Oh, yeah? Two can play that compare and contrast game. Forget your potato patients. Who cares about them? They do what, sit on the couch and eat bags of chips every night? How about Susan Sarandon and Tina Turner? Or—let’s get personal—Carole Kilmartin, my high school classmate, who, at the fiftieth reunion had zero body fat, played tennis daily and looked thirty-five. How sorry do I look next to those old broads? Let’s get even more personal. How do I compare to Pat Dubrava at forty? Pathetic. I’ve seen photos.

Until now, I’ve been blessed with good health, so issues my doctor sees as minor ailments are alarmingly major to me. I expect to hear the headache is due to a brain tumor and we’ll just cut that out for you, not—oh, lots of people have headaches for lots of reasons. Have you tried changing your pillow? I expect to be given a cure for the shoulder, not—try staying off the computer. Stay off the computer? You know I’m a writer, right?

I leave with a mix of frustration and renewed confidence A few days from seventy, it dawns on me that there may not be any cure for these aches and pains. They may have no cause beyond normal decline of the body, in which case they’ll just get worse. That’s the frustrating part. The confidence returning part is because a) I apparently don’t have cancer yet and b) after moving my leg around to check my hip, Dr. Hunter says, “I see people fifty years old who don’t have half this range of motion.” I strut out of there feeling pretty cocky. Check out my range of motion, slackers.

I’ve been eagerly awaiting this seventieth birthday. The sixties was a wishy-washy decade: neither middle-aged nor old, too young to retire but ready to quit, not venerable enough to get respect but too past prime to be taken seriously. Seventy, though, that’s got clout. According to a recent AARP survey, people believe old age begins at seventy. Of course, it depends on whom you ask. Kids think forty’s old. And everyone over forty fools themselves into believing they look younger than their contemporaries. When I see someone in my age group, I usually think smugly, “Wow, he really shows the wear and tear, doesn’t he?” If I see Carole Kilmartin, Class of ’62, I figure she’s made a pact with the devil and blot her out of my mind.

Seventy is a significant peak from which our perspective lengthens. That horrible first marriage, those disastrous job choices? How tiny, how far away they are! From seventy, you can evaluate events more sensibly. (You can. Doesn’t mean you will.) But let’s keep this septuagenarian business in perspective too. Reaching seventy in fair shape makes me a bit arrogant. You’d think I’d won a blue ribbon. You’d think it meant something. It does. It means I didn’t die yet. Woo-hoo.

According to the Life Expectancy Calculator on the Social Security website, people my age live to, on average, 87. The good lord willing, that’s just seventeen more years. I better get busy. I have writing to do. This difficult, satisfying work of being writer and translator is something I’ve just begun in earnest. It doesn’t pay and no one cares if I do it or not. That doesn’t matter. But don’t you try it. Mark Twain was right: what cures one person is poison for another.



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Canned Peas

“Canned peas.”

“Campbell’s pork and beans.”

“With boiled hot dogs.”

“Mom made tuna casserole.”

“My mother made that too.”

A box of Kraft macaroni and cheese, one can of tuna, one of peas, fed a family of five.

My husband and I delight in comparing the particulars of our origins. Phil’s childhood was mostly in basement apartments, mine in trailers. I was born in New York, he in California. He grew up in Denver, I in Florida, but our mothers were raised poor in 1930s New York City, and that commonality is as strong as any other bond between us.

Born into households without education, our mothers got no further than high school themselves. As young girls, both were sent to be live-in mother’s helpers for wealthy families. Neither of them cared to talk about those experiences.

Upward mobility was common then. Many in both our families attained middle class incomes. Not our parents. Phil’s mother raised him and his sister on her own. My father finished the sixth grade without learning to read and write.

In my family, you rinsed and smoothed tin foil to be reused, refolded paper bags.

Rubber bands accumulated on doorknobs.

Cars came used and Dad was always working on them.

Mom was a waitress, a nurse’s aide.

Dad was a truck driver, a mechanic, had grease under his fingernails.

When I was growing up in Florida you could get a work permit at fourteen. With my first checks I bought groceries, bought my own clothes from then on. When we finally left the trailer for a house, I gave my mother something she’d never have bought herself: a fruit bowl and candlestick set for the dining room. The gift was a sign of my aspirations, although I couldn’t have said what they were.

High school was easy. My GPA earned a surprise college scholarship, and I was relieved to have the future decided for me. Mom asked what an “English major” was. Dad felt uneasy about why I was going. I didn’t know what an English major was, just loved lit classes. My parents’ anxiety confused me. I was dimly aware that going to college should be a good thing.

A lifetime later, teaching at an alternative school in Denver, I watched a black student doing a brilliant job on his oral history exam. His brother and cousin, seeing this, began interrupting, making jokes. Sabotage. The other teachers were baffled, but I got it. If he started doing well in school, he’d leave them. My parents’ anxiety was well grounded. Once I went to college, I never really came home again, became a visitor.

Mom worked graves at the hospital. Dad went to work at dawn, woke me before he left. I got my brothers up, set out juice and cereal. As we headed for the bus, Mom got home, dark shadows under her eyes. After school, she was asleep. I made the boys change out of their school clothes, do their homework, fixed snacks, sent them out to play, did dishes, started dinner, all while trying not to wake my mother, who never got enough sleep. I had Saturday retail jobs, babysat evenings. A working class hero is something to be.

That accidental scholarship sent me to the University of Florida, opened doors I hadn’t known existed. Cantering in their unexpected light, I discovered Dylan Thomas, Fellini and Shostakovich, heard the distant rumble of revolution coming from California, had to go west to see for myself, the bit in my teeth.

My father listened to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio.

He flipped through Popular Mechanics magazines.

My mother read Reader’s Digest Condensed Books.

Most of my childhood we had no TV.

Going out to eat was at Howard Johnson’s and only when New York relatives came to visit.

Phil and I have done better than our parents did, but it doesn’t change how hard they worked for the little they earned, doesn’t change our history. Americans pretend diligent industry lets you rise through socio-economic classes reliably as the sun, but that’s never been true. They think you can leave class behind the way you shrug off an old coat, but that’s not true either. Someone suggests the rich represent survival of the fittest and my kneejerk anger flares. I want to snarl, “You don’t know shit.” Or bitterness flickers over Phil’s face when someone talks about art school. He never had that chance.

We recognize these ill-trained mongrels in each other, help bring them to heel. After all, it’s not other people’s fault they weren’t raised poor, nor is it ours that we were, however much each group tends to castigate the other. No easy rising to it, class in America. However far afield we travel, we take the trappings of our beginnings with us.

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